Building a World Fit for Children

Statement by  Mr. Kul C. Gautam
Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
At Cutting Edge 4: An International Working Conference for
Leaders of Christian Ministries to Children at Risk
Netherlands, 15 October 2002

It is a great pleasure to join you today, and I want to thank the Viva Network for inviting me to speak at this Cutting Edge Conference.
I have noted that your previous gatherings in this series have been truly inspiring and cutting edge.  And I hope in my discussion with you today to share some cutting edge ideas that you, the leaders of a movement of Christians caring for “children at risk”, and UNICEF, the United Nations’ lead agency for children in the world, can work together to promote the well-being of all God’s children.

This conference is especially timely, as it is being held 5 months after one of the greatest gatherings of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on Children in May 2002 in New York.
As you saw in the film, the Special Session brought together not just the political leaders of the world, but a large number of children and young people themselves, leaders of non-governmental organizations, child rights activists, and very significantly, religious and spiritual leaders from all of the world’s major religions, including Christianity.

Many faith-based organizations participated actively in the preparatory process of the Special Session. Clergy of the world’s major religions officiated an interfaith service on the eve of the Special Session. During the service young people called for united action by religious communities in support of children’s rights, and religious leaders offered their blessing for it.
At a symposium organized jointly by the World Conference on Religion and Peace and UNICEF, leaders of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Indigenous faiths issued a declaration of “Commitment of the World’s Religions to Children”. I have attached this Declaration at the end of my speech, and would commend it to you.

In this declaration of commitment religious leaders affirmed the support of their faiths for the dignity and human rights of children. They called on members of their communities to build a partnership with governments, civil society organizations, and UN agencies to ensure that every child is loved, protected and respected.

The message of the religious communities was clearly heard and resonated well at the Special Session. Its Plan of Action (para 32.7) adopted unanimously by world leaders, specifically called for strengthened partnership with religious, spiritual, cultural and indigenous leaders. With their tremendous outreach capacity, such leaders have “a key role as front-line actors for children to help translate the goals and targets of this Plan of Action into priorities for their communities and to mobilize and inspire people to take action in favour of children”.

I know some of you attended the Special Session and/or its preparatory meetings. And many of you will have read its outcome document called a “World Fit for Children”. For those of you who may not be familiar, let me give you a very quick overview.

The first part of this document, the Declaration, contains a reaffirmation by leaders to fulfil past commitments made for children and to protect and promote children’s rights.  In it all members of society are called upon to join in a global movement for children and to uphold ten key principles as their commitments, to:

  • put children first
  • eradicate poverty and invest in children
  • leave no child behind
  • care for every child
  • educate every child
  • protect children from harm and exploitation
  • protect children from war
  • combat HIV/AIDS
  • listen to children and ensure their participation, and
  •  protect the Earth for children.

It should be noted that these ten key principles and actions were at the heart of a record-breaking pledge campaign in the lead-up to the Special Session, garnering the votes of  95 million people in all regions of the world who said Yes for Children.

The Declaration is followed by a Plan of Action that first outlines conditions and actions aimed at “Creating a world fit for children”. This sets out three key outcomes for children that need to be achieved through commitment and partnerships at all levels of society. These are:

(a)     Giving every child a good start to life;

(b)    Access to a quality basic education, including free and compulsory primary education; and

(c)     Ample opportunity for adolescents to develop their individual capacities in a safe and supportive environment.

The second part of the Plan of Action, “Goals, strategies and actions”, reaffirms the many goals and targets relevant for children. Some of these are new and others were many previously endorsed by the major world summits and conferences of the past decade, including the World Summit for Children and the UN Millennium Summit.

Within the framework of those goals and targets, four key areas of focus are proposed as the most urgent and strategically important priorities for children in the coming decade:

  •  Promoting healthy lives;
  •  Providing quality education;
  • Protecting children from abuse, exploitation and violence; and
  • Combating HIV/AIDS

Mobilizing sufficient resources and adequate follow-up and monitoring are also key components of the Plan of Action.
I am confident that you will find in this Declaration and Plan of Action, specific proposals for action that members of the Viva Network of Christian organizations will find compelling for your support and solidarity.
I am aware that at the time of intense negotiations at the Special Session, questions were raised by certain sectors of religious communities about whether the traditional role of parents and families, so precious in all religious traditions, were adequately reflected in the outcome document. I can assure you that they were.

In the Declaration of the outcome document (para 6), the leaders of the world proclaimed emphatically, “We recognize and support parents and families, or as the case maybe, legal guardians as the primary caretakers of children, and we will strengthen their capacity to provide the optimum care, nurturing and protection”.

This strong support for the role of parents and families in the outcome document of the Special Session was inspired by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC in its preamble recognises that “the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community”.

Furthermore, it recognises that “the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”.
In keeping with this recognition, the leaders assembled at the Special Session expressed their determination “to promote access by parents, families, legal guardians, caregivers and children themselves to a full range of information and services to promote child survival, development, protection and participation” (para 17 of WFFC Plan of Action).

People of all religious faiths should be comforted by the categorical statement in para 32.2 of the Plan of Action which states, “Parents families, legal guardians and other caregivers have the primary role and responsibility for the wellbeing of children, and must be supported in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities. All our policies and programmes should promote the shared responsibility of parents, families, legal guardians and other caregivers, and society as a whole in this regard.”
If such unequivocal statements are not family-friendly enough, I do not know what others would be.

Now, as we all know, unfortunately not all children are lucky enough to grow up in a loving and caring family. At the Special Session leaders acknowledged that “a considerable number of children live without parental support, such as orphans, children living on the street, internally displaced and refugee children, children affected by trafficking and sexual and economic exploitation and children who are incarcerated. Special measures should be taken to support such children and the institutions, facilities and services that care for them, and to build and strengthen children’s own abilities to protect themselves” (para 16).

And while we are all keen to promote and protect good traditional values, we are also mindful that in many societies and cultures there are harmful traditional or customary practices, superstitious beliefs and discriminatory rules that violate the human rights of women and children. The world’s religions have a major role to play in ending such practices.
Indeed, as their core values, all the great religions of the world preach love, peace, solidarity and compassion.  Yet, in today’s world, far too many crimes are committed, hatred is spread, injustice is justified, and intolerance inculcated often in the name of religion.

This state of affairs is simply unacceptable, and contributes to a vicious cycle of intolerance and conflict.
We also have far too many instances where, instead of teaching children to appreciate and value diversity, children are taught to see their own religion or faith as superior to that of others.

The Plan of Action (para 40.7) calls upon all of us to “Ensure that education programmes and materials fully reflect the promotion and protection of human rights and the values of peace, tolerance and gender equality…”
I trust that in this increasingly materialistic world, we would all agree that the religious and spiritual convictions that we adults inculcate in children should inspire them to adopt an ethical-moral value system in which they learn to value service and solidarity, peace and tolerance.

Dear friends,

Each of our organizations needs to find the most appropriate way to help follow up the outcome of the Special Session in accordance with our mandates and comparative advantage.
In the case of UNICEF, we are guided by our mission statement which mandates us to advocate for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential.

We find the goals and strategies of the World Fit for Children completely consistent with our mission and mandate. Based on our analysis of the situation of children in developing countries and on UNICEF’s organizational strengths, we have identified five priority areas in which we will focus our support in the coming years.

1.      Integrated early childhood development including health, nutrition, water and sanitation, psychosocial care, early learning, and child protection

2.      Immunization “plus”

3.      Girls’ education-a top corporate priority

4.      Improved protection of children from violence, exploitation, abuse and discrimination; and

5.      Fighting HIV/AIDS.

UNICEF will pursue these priorities through our country programmes in developing countries, and also through advocacy, monitoring, research, policy analysis, and partnerships at all levels, including, we hope, with members of the Viva Network.
As I look to you, members of the Viva Network and leaders of Christian Ministries for children at risk, working all over the world in remote rural areas and urban shanty towns, I can imagine how helpful and influential you can be in building a world fit for children.
You have some extraordinary assets, and the power of religious conviction and moral authority. You can use these assets to bring about a real, positive change for children.

  • You are leaders within your societies, with the ability to change mindsets and set priorities for your communities;
  • You are moral standard-bearers, and are often the first to respond to problems in your communities, whether they are natural disasters or social and economic crises;
  • Many of you are masterful communicators, who can ensure that words touch the hearts and minds of people.

As the poet Matthew Arnold said, “The true meaning of religion is thus, not simply morality,but morality touched by emotion”.
This implies  that you have the skill and the capacity to let the truth be felt and understood at an emotional level. You can draw attention to realities in ways that present issues in a new light, or inspire people to believe that what is seen as impossible, can in fact be done.

I ask you to work with us and to help us in disseminating universally agreed values and goals, translating them into individual will that makes a difference for children.
For, to quote a great religious leader of our times – the late Martin Luther King Jr. – “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”

One of the biggest contributions you can make would be to help overcome negative attitudes and perceptions that stand in the way of improving the situation of children at risk.  Religious and spiritual leaders throughout the world are usually held in such high esteem that you can make a mark where others are unable to.

Let me share with you a couple of examples of outstanding work done by faith based organizations in support of child survival and development:

In several countries of the Mekong region in Asia, including Cambodia, Southern China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam, UNICEF has been working with the Sangha Mettaor “Compassionate Monks” project to combat HIV/AIDS. This project involves Buddhist monks and temples in the prevention and care of people suffering from HIV/AIDS. The idea and initiative came from the Buddhist monks themselves, who applied Lord Buddha’s teachings to show compassion for the needy and the vulnerable as their inspiration.
As the monks go to villages to beg for alms, or as they preach at their temples, they teach villagers how to avoid high-risk behaviour, help to set up support groups, train people with HIV/AIDS in handicrafts, donate their alms and take care of AIDS orphans.
Because people are accustomed to telling monks their troubles, these monks have become a conduit for identifying many HIV-positive people who then can be referred to support groups and public assistance.
I am sure there are many examples of Christian missionaries performing similar tasks. With the catastrophe of HIV/AIDS decimating whole societies, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, I would hope that faith based organizations belonging to the Viva Network could work with us to assist people with HIV/AIDS, including AIDS orphans in Africa;
In another example, this one from the Islamic tradition, a group of religious leaders from 16 countries in Africa are working to counter violence against girls and women, with special focus on the cruel practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM.  The initiative, organized by the InterAfrica Committee on Traditional Practices, includes in their approach the message from Islamic scholars from Egypt and Senegal that FGM is not based on  religious injunction but on customary practice, which can be changed.
I would think that members of the Viva Network could work against harmful traditional or discriminatory practices that maybe prevalent in communities where you work.

There are many other global initiatives, such as the push to eradicate polio, which have benefited tremendously from social mobilisation activities at community level. I recall in the mid-1980s UNICEF worked with the Catholic Church in El Salvador, where a civil war was stopped for a few days each year to allow for children on both sides of the conflict to be vaccinated.
Indeed all over Latin America, the Christian Churches have played an instrumental role in promoting National Immunisation Days. I can imagine organizations belonging to the Viva Network playing a major role in such public health programmes.
I am sure you could cite many such examples of faith based organizations being in the vanguard of promoting actions for the survival, protection, development and participation of children.
As we look forward to the massive task of implementing the ambitious goals and targets of the World Fit for Children, I would like to suggest five key areas for your action:

1)      First, please help communicate the key points of “A World Fit for Children” to your constituencies. In this context, we look to you to help dispel any misunderstanding and misconceptions about whether or not the goals and strategies of the World Fit for Children or the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child are compatible with Christian or other religious beliefs and values. Please recall that these documents were negotiated and agreed unanimously by all the world’s states, including the Holy See.

2)      Religious leaders are by nature expert communicators, opinion leaders and social mobilisers, accustomed to translating complex texts into understandable messages. We look to you to help convey the key messages of the WFFC and CRC in a language more readily understandable to ordinary people, including children. In fact, we now have a child-friendly version of the World Fit for Children that you may wish to disseminate to your young constituencies.

3)      Work with your communities to identify priorities from among the goals of the WFFC that are of particular relevance to them.  I would stress the importance of doing this exercise jointly with local community groups, so that there is common understanding and agreement on what should be considered a priority.

I recall that in Haiti, where I served as UNICEF Representative many years ago, there was a progressive archbishop in Cap Haitien who took the initiative of asking both the clergy and the general public what they thought should be the role and responsibilities of priests.  The results were fascinating. They showed that there were major differences in perception-while the priests thought their role should be to inspire and provide religious guidance to their parishioners, the people felt that priests should take up the cause of fighting inequity and poverty. So let us not presume that we know all the answers. Let us be prepared to learn from ordinary people’s folk wisdom.

4)      Please analyse what is holding back progress for children in your communities, and join forces with governments, UN agencies and other stakeholders to mobilize action to overcome the obstacles. In the coming months many countries will be preparing national plans of action to implement the goals and strategies of the World Fit for Children and the Millennium Development Goals. Please join in that process and influence the outcome.

5)      Finally, and most importantly, continue working directly with children, treating them as resources and partners, not problems, and inculcating in them the true teachings of Christianity and the world’s other great religions – love, peace, tolerance, solidarity and compassion.

One example of such work directly with children that is crying out for our attention is the plight of AIDS orphans. Over 14 million children have lost one or both of their parents to AIDS – 95 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa. If present trends continue, this number may rise to 30 million by the end of this decade. AIDS orphans often face stigma and discrimination, alongside poverty and vulnerability to exploitation. The deep moral assets of religions, especially Christianity, can and must be mobilised to remove the burden of stigma to protect and promote the wellbeing of these children. I trust that organizations belonging to the Viva Network could take this up as a major mission of their ministry.